The Song of Names, by Norman Lebrecht, Random House, Inc., 2002, 311 pp.
I picked this book out of a shelf of trade paperbacks at one of my favorite independent bookstores: Once Upon A Time, in Montrose, CA. I was solely attracted by the title. On the back cover the blurb says, "Martin Simmonds' father tells him, 'Never trust a musician when he speaks about love.' The advice comes too late." I was sold.
My husband actually read the book first and was completely charmed. (We are both musicians.) He would read to me from it in bed at night. Then it sat on my shelf of to-be-read contemporary fiction for months. Finally I got it selected as a pick for the reading group at the very store where I bought it and sat down to read it last weekend.
I was not disappointed. It has been a while since I enjoyed a book this much. Martin Simmonds is the son of a man who ran a music promotion company that catered to the middle-class as an audience. In 1940s England, that was unique and probably considered quite low-brow. But the man was a master of PR and with this skill would take young hopefuls in classical music and build them a career of minor fame.
Just before Hitler invaded Poland, David Rapoport, a nine year old violin prodigy is left by his father in the care of the Simmonds family. David is many things to the family. To the father, he is the great future star who will make the company well thought of. So David is groomed and coddled, brought to the best teachers, given an almost priceless violin. To nine year old Martin, David is a brother, a companion, an idol, but most of all someone to love in a fairly loveless family. They grow up together and David makes Martin come alive, gives him a personality and Martin feels loved.
The book begins 40 years after David disappeared on the night of his world debut. Martin is an old hypocondriac and a broken spirit. He now runs the family business which has devolved into a shoddy, outdated sheet music company. On a business trip to the English hinterlands, Martin hears a young violinist with a bit of David's signature technique in his playing. So begins the search for the lost David and the reader learns the back story.
It is a wonderful book, written in a smart modern tone but full of history. During the Battle of Britain, you feel you are there with two nine year old boys, doing the paper route and exploring the bomb sites. The world of a training musician, of the singleminded competitive attitude necessary, of the maneuvering by the manager/promoter is all created. And the inner life of a boy growing to manhood in a foreign country with no news of his Jewish family in war-torn Poland is portrayed with reality and sensitivity. But it is not a mawkish or heartwarming story. It is full of human folly and unlovely emotions. The moment when the meaning of the title is revealed was so heart-stopping for me that I had to put the book down for a while. But there is also humor, musical philosophy, religious ideas and a good dose of mystery.
The Song of Names won a Whitbread First Novel Award. Say what you will about awards, but if it hadn't won I may have never heard of or found the book.